November 3, 2013


          John Lundin is currently living with the indigenous peoples of La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, learning from them and writing a new novel that will share their spiritual and environmental message with the world – their message that our Earth Mother is gravely ill and she will surely die if we, the ones they call the Younger Brother, do not change our ways. The Arhuaco and Kogi, descendants of the ancient Tayrona, fled the onslaught of the Spanish conquerors and shut themselves off from the outside world. Their way of life has remained largely unchanged for more than five hundred years. They consider themselves – and their sacred mountain home – to be the Heart of the World.

The elders have invited author Lundin to live with them, to learn from them, and to write this new book to help them share their urgent message.

This is an excerpt from the novel under construction, Journey to the Heart of the World, and is a teaching from the elders – the Mamos – that was actually given to the author and which has been fictionalized in the book. The hero of the novel is Christian Castagno, an 18-year-old teenager from New York who is led by a talking owl butterfly to the mountains of Colombia where he receives the life-changing teachings of the elders. He carries with him a letter given to him by his mother on the day she died of cancer, a letter that guides his spiritual quest.

This first teaching sets the tone for all the teachings that will follow…

* * * * *

          Niankua and the others were waiting for me on the hillside. They greeted me with words that sounded like “azi mazuri,” and Niankua pulled something from his shoulder bag, his mochilla, and said, “When we meet, we offer each other the coca leaves. I give some to you, and you give some to me. It is a practice in giving and receiving. The leaves of the coca plant are a gift, a gift of energy. Whenever we receive a gift we must always give back something in return.”  He then retrieved a small mochilla from his larger one and handed it to me. “These are your leaves. Put some in your mouth, in your cheek, and chew on them. Keep the others to give back later.”

I put a generous pinch of the dry leaves into my mouth and chewed on them. They had very little flavor, but soon there was a slight tingling sensation on my tongue and cheek. I did as the others were doing; I chewed on them as I would chew gum or maybe chewing tobacco.  It didn’t seem to be giving me any kind of a high or anything like that.

Niankua held up his gourd and explained, “When a boy becomes a man he receives the poporo. With the poporo we release the full energy of the leaves.” He pulled the stick from the gourd, the stick he was constantly dipping in the gourd then pulling out and rubbing against the outside of the gourd. He placed the stick in his mouth, licking the white substance from its tip. “Younger Brother is not yet ready for the poporu.”

Niankua and the others kept working their gourds, their poporo, constantly dipping the stick in the gourd, dipping it in their mouth, and seeming to paint the sides of the gourd with it. Me, I just kept chewing my coca leaves.

“When a young boy is recognized by the elders as a future Mamo, he is brought to a place away from the others, to his own hut, where he is hidden from all distractions and carefully taught by the elder Mamos. He learns how it was in the beginning, and learns the long story of our people, the original people. He discovers Aluna, how to enter into her world, how to divine what she is revealing to us. He learns how we are called to care for our Earth Mother. He learns how to heal. He discovers everything that has been passed on to the Mamos before him. In time it is all revealed to him, so that one day he can be a leader and can pass on all that has been revealed to him, so he can show the way to those who will follow. This teaching takes many years for the young Mamo.

“We have called you to come to the mountain, to leave your world behind, to be alone in this place, free of all distraction, to receive the teachings. We will teach you. But with you we do not have many years as we do with a young Mamo. Our Earth Mother is suffering. She is in need of healing. Every day we see the changes, we see the disease spreading. Every day we do our job, we do our work, we care for our Earth Mother. But it is no longer enough. We have seen what is happening to the mountain and what is happening beyond our world. We can no longer ignore what the Younger Brother is doing. If Younger Brother does not awaken and change his ways, if he does not become the healer instead of the one spreading the disease, then our Earth Mother will surely die.”

Niankua looked deep into my eyes as he delivered his solemn warning directly to my heart. His eyes were almost tearful as he made it clear this was serious business. We were about to begin the teachings that he fervently hoped would change my life and begin to change the world.

“In the beginning, the natural law was given to the original people. It is written in the colors – it is written on the stone and in the water, in the colors of the rocks and the land, the colors of the oceans and the rivers and the snows, the colors of the plants and the trees, the colors of the birds and the animals and the fishes, and the colors of the people - the brown people, the white people and the black people, the red people and the yellow people and the peoples of all colors in between. The Younger Brother can learn to read the colors - with much spiritual work and effort.”

I felt like I felt when my mother first started schooling me at home. With her I always felt I was being given the gift of knowledge, not just facts to memorize; revelation that would pique my natural curiosity, knowledge that would inform my experience and grow into wisdom. She always told me the Earth was our best teacher, and I felt as though she was speaking to me now.

“In the beginning there was nothing – no land, no water, no plants or animals, no people. Nothing. Only Aluna. Only the fertile sea of thought that is Aluna. Aluna is the creative imagination, the mind, the consciousness. Everything is created in Aluna; everything is created in the imagination. Nothing comes into being until it is imagined. When it is imagined it comes into being. So it was with Aluna, in the beginning. All that is was first imagined, imagined in Aluna. Everything was born in the imagining. Aluna is the ultimate reality, the source of our being. Aluna is everything that is, everything that was or ever will be. We - you and I, the Elder Brother and the Younger Brother - we were all given birth in the creative imagination of Aluna.”

He motioned for me to rise and follow him to a point on the hill where we could view the entire valley and the mountains beyond. With a sweeping wave of his arm he pointed to the broad horizon.

“In the beginning…there was nothing. No valley, no river, no mountains, no birds, not even the sky. All that you see in this world was first imagined in Aluna. Nothing was ever created that was not first imagined. Everything that has ever been created was born first in the imagination. The creative imagination has given birth to all that has ever come into being. Everything.”

I was looking out at the world from my new vantage point. I was watching the water, watching the birds, watching the sky, and already starting to see everything in a new way. It was as if I was seeing it all for the very first time. It was as if my new teacher was holding the world in his hand and rotating it, turning it around and around and saying to me, look at it in a different way, from a different angle. Look at it from here. Look at it this way. All of this, everything, was created in the imagination.

“Everything was created in the imagination of Aluna. First she imagined the sky and the sun and the moon and the stars. She imagined them into being. And then she imagined the land and the mountains, the oceans and the rivers, and then she imagined the plants and the animals and the birds into being.

“Finally she imagined the people into becoming, the people she imagined would care for all she had created, the people who would nurture it, protect it. The people who would be the living heart of the world she had imagined into being.”

He explained that the Mamos knew all the details of how everything was created but that it would take nine years to explain it all to me, and the details were not something I needed to know anyway. The process of creating, of bringing that which was imagined into being, was like spinning thread on a spindle, like the men weaving their clothing on the loom, like the women weaving the mochilla with their hands.

“The Mother stuck her spindle in the fertile ground of her imagination and spun it, turning the world of her imagining on its axis, spinning out a thread which is both time and space, creating first a heap of thread that is the mountain, and then more and more, spiraling ever outward, eventually weaving the fabric that is the whole of the world. All the patterns and all the colors she had imagined are carefully woven into place, and finally the complex tapestry emerges. Aluna created all this that you see with her spindle and loom. She created and is still creating. We remember this whenever the men weave the clothes and when the women weave the mochilla. Our clothes, our mochilla, everything, may be helped into this world by our hands, may be shaped on our loom, but they were first born in the Mother’s imagining. Everything that is or has been existed first in the world of Aluna before it came into being in our world.”

He motioned again toward the world that was spread out before our eyes, and then reached down and took hold of a yellow flower growing at his feet.

“Everything is from Aluna, everything is one with Aluna. All the plants and animals, the mountains and waters, the sky and the birds – and all the people – were one in Aluna and all are still one with Aluna.”

A butterfly landed on the flower he was holding, not an owl butterfly this time but a bright yellow one, the color of the flower he was holding. Niankua extended his hand toward the butterfly who fearlessly came to rest on his finger.

“Since everything is from Aluna, we are all a part of the same One. You are the sun and the rain, the water and the plants, the birds and the animals. There is no such thing as ‘nature,’ apart from you and me. You are nature, I am nature, just as you are me and I am you.”

Now it was the other Mamos’ turn. As we walked along the ridge, looking at the view of the valley, they explained to me that the energy of Aluna, the creative energy, had been woven into the mountain. One of them used a branch to inscribe a triangle in the dirt, saying the mountain was a pyramid, a pyramid of energy. It was the job of the Mamos to maintain the balance and harmony of the mountain’s energy. “Everyone has a job to do, every plant and animal has a job to do. The Mamo’s job is to care for the mountain, the heart of the world. If the heart is healthy, if she is beating in harmony with the natural rhythms of the Earth, then the earth is healthy. If the mountain is not healthy, if the energy of the mountain is out of balance, out of rhythm, then the whole world is out of balance.”

Another of the four Mamos stepped forward and continued the teaching:

“The mountain is the heart of the world, and those of us who care for her are the heart of the world as well. There is no difference, no separation; we are one - the mountain, the people, the heart of the world. The mother created the people, created them from her offspring, from her first born. She created the first peoples to look after her creation, to care for it, to be the caretakers of the world, to be the heart of the world here on the mountain that is the heart of the world. The plants and the trees, the animals and the birds were placed in the people’s care, not for the people to dominate and exploit but for the people to take care of.

“The people were created in the imagination of Aluna, and the people have a spark of that creative imagination within them. The plants and the animals do not. The people can dream, can imagine a future; the plants and animals cannot. The people were created with a compassionate heart, a loving kindness that was given to them so that they would understand that their purpose is to care for all the others. The plants and the animals do not have that kind of compassionate heart, do not have a creative imagination. The plants and animals only know their one small job in life, and they only know how to do it. It is the people’s job to protect them so that they can continue to do their job. That is the people’s only job, their purpose on this mountain, on all the Earth – to care for and protect all the others.”

The fourth Mamo took another branch in hand and again drew a line on the ground.

“After the Mother created the original peoples, the Elder Brother, she created a second people, the Younger Brother. These second people also had a creative imagination, the ability to envision things and bring them into being. In fact, that was to be their job, their only job – imagining and making things. But their creative mind was like that of the monkey - they never developed, always jumping about, jumping from this branch to that, from this idea to that, always wanting new things. They wouldn’t stay still long enough to listen to the Mother, they paid no attention to the Mother’s teaching; they ignored the Natural Law. They only paid attention to their monkey mind, never listening to their compassionate heart. They consumed all their energy making and using things, and never developed their capacity to care for the things that were already around them. They developed their brain, but never developed their heart. They came to believe it was their job to conquer new worlds and ignored their responsibility to show loving kindness toward the world the Mother had created.”

He pointed to the line he had drawn in the dirt. “It is for this reason that the Younger Brother was expelled from the mountain. He was driven from the mountain and sent into exile across the sea. He was sent to a harsh land where it was cold and where the fruits did not grow and where the animals did not abound, and here he was free to occupy his time making and acquiring things in order to survive. The Elder Brother would continue to care for the mountain and the earth and leave the Younger Brother to follow his own pursuits on the other side of the ocean, in another part of the world.”

The four Mamos motioned for me to follow, and we made our way down the hillside toward the river and eventually to a collection of large boulders at the edge of the water. They pointed to strange markings on the stone, lines that were not unlike those on the rocks I had seen earlier in the Lost City.

“We did not mark this stone. The people did not mark the rock. It was marked by wind and water, inscribed in Aluna. It is a map of the mountain, and beyond. All the universe is inscribed here. A map of the past and a map of the future. The Mamos can read the map, can read the mountain. We can see the place of the mountain, the heart of the world, and we can see the places beyond, the lands beyond the mountain, beyond this valley, beyond the sea, the lands where the Younger Brother has been using all his energy making things. We can read the changes. We watch the water. We watch the birds. We watch the sky. We can see in them what is happening beyond the mountain. We can see the changes.”

They led me across the river, not across the bridge this time, but by wading through the shallow water. The Mamos don’t wear shoes or sandals, they explained, because they want to feel the land, feel the water. They’re always connected to the Earth in this way. Sandals on their feet would create a disconnect, an unhealthy separation. Touching the land with the soles of their feet is a constant reminder that they are one with the earth. They must have very strong soles since they’re constantly walking the trails and climbing the hills and crossing the river in their bare feet. I removed my shoes and waded into the river. The sun was already very warm and the icy cold waters were invigorating.

We crossed the river and walked toward the hills on the opposite side of the valley and began following the trail upward. There were clusters of huts and the villagers would peer at me through the open doors, the children peeking from behind the safety of their mother. I was the pale-faced curiosity, for sure. We continued walking for a considerable distance, at times climbing very steeply up the mountain. The Mamos walk very briskly and it was often a challenge for me to keep up. As we got higher and higher I could occasionally catch a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks in the distance, barely visible through the clouds just above the nearer mountains.

We climbed to the top of a ridge and started down the other side when I heard the sound of rushing water. The river water back on the floor of the valley had been very calm, but this was a loud and powerful sound. As we made our way down the steep hillside I could see a deep canyon below with the waters tumbling through it and down the mountain. And above the waters was a giant stream of water cascading down the entire height of the mountain before us. The waters fell hundreds of feet into the pool below before continuing over the edge into the canyon stream below. I have seen many waterfalls, before and since, but this may have been the most beautiful of all.

For some time we all stood silently, reverently gazing at the majesty of the water. It was a moment of meditation, of prayer. For a teenager like me it could easily have been a time to jump into the blue pool and frolic under the cascading waters, but that’s not what this particular moment in time called for. The Mamos quietly watched the waters fall and worked their poporu. I followed their lead and my mother’s advice - I watched the water, watched the water in awe and deep respect. It was clear the Mamos had brought me here for a reason, for another important lesson.

“In the beginning all was water. The water was the Mother, the water was Aluna. Where there is water there is life, there is memory of the past and potential for the future. It is in the water that everything can be imagined into being. Without the water, nothing can be imagined. Without water the plants would die, the people would die, the Mother herself would die. That is the most basic law. Without water there is no life. Take away the water and everything will die. That is the Law. The people cannot change the Law - not the Mamos, not the king, not the president, not the congress or the parliament. The Natural Law is constant, forever, unchangeable. Without water there can be no life. If we are to care for the world, first we must care for the water.”

I knew that, of course, but with the backdrop of the magnificent waterfall the message of the Mamos was powerful. In the beginning was the water. Water is life. Take away the water and you take away life. End of story.

“In the beginning we were formed in the water. The Mother formed us there. The waters are like the Mother’s milk, they give life to the new creation, to the child of her womb. We were all conceived in the waters of Aluna, in the creative imagination of the sea of Aluna. When you were conceived, it was known first in Aluna, it was known in the water. Your future was known in Aluna before you were born. You were conceived in the waters of Aluna before you were born beside the life-giving waters of all the oceans and rivers of this earth.”

It was as my mother had said, in her letter. And there was more:

“You were born upon that sea. Everything we would ever remember was first in the waters, in the ocean of Aluna. It always was. It was before it was. In the Mother’s knowing. All the worlds that stretch forever, beyond all the waters of all the rivers and beyond the beyond have always been in the Mother’s knowing. It always was, from the beginning. As long as there is water giving life to the plants and the trees, as long as there are clouds and rains and snow, the trees and skies will always hold all it is that we should remember.”

The teacher waded into the water at the base of the waterfall and beckoned for us all to follow. He held his poporu in both hands for a moment, lifting it toward the waterfall, offering a blessing. He dipped the stick in the poporu and then into his mouth. He placed the poporo in his mochilla, and with both hands he scooped up the water. Several times he scooped up the water and let it fall through his hands, through his fingers, the waters sparkling in the sun, the bubbles dancing on the pond. He lifted a handful of water and held it out toward me, for me to look into.

“All that ever was or ever will be is in the water, in the memory of the water, the memory of the sea of Aluna. Everything that ever was or ever will be has been born in the waters and nurtured by the waters. The water is Aluna, the water is life. If we watch the bubbles we can see the memory of all that was, a vision of all that will be. All we should remember can be found in the water.”

He turned his back to the waterfall and looked out at the horizon ahead, at where the water flowed to the edge and over the rock, falling in another cascade to stream into the ravine below. From there the water continued its journey down the mountain, joining the river below, and eventually making its way to the sea. Ahead we could see the whole valley and the mountains on the other side, and the snowy peaks above it all.

“As far as you can see,” he said with another broad wave of his hand, “everything is water. The plants and trees are water, the snows are water, the rivers and streams are water, of course. Even the mountains and hills, even the rocks and stones, are all water, filled with water, literally mountains of water. And you are water. There is nothing you can see that is not water. The water weaves everything together, all is alive, all is interwoven. And just as the water is alive, everything of the water is alive. The trees and the plants, the mountains and the rocks, the animals and the birds, even the sky and the clouds - all are alive, alive with water flowing through their veins. There is life in the smallest drop of water, and there is water flowing through the tallest mountain. Everything was born of the same water - every animal, every plant, every person, every mountain. All have the same Mother, all have the same water running through them. This is why every mountain is your brother, your sister, your mother and your grandmother. Every tree is your cousin. We are all a part of the same One.”

I had never thought of water in this way before. I have to admit, I had probably pretty much taken water for granted. I had always known water in my life, plenty of water, enough for drinking, taking a shower, watering the plants – there was always water around me and always enough water. It never ran out. So I guess I just took it for granted. Sure, I enjoyed looking at a beautiful lake or watching the sea as much as the next person, and I knew there was life in the water, the “little beasties” we had seen through the microscope in science class, but I had never seen water in this way before. I was seeing it in a different way, from a different perspective.

“When you look at the water, when you want to see deep inside the water, you always need to look at it from the four directions.”

 Like the butterfly, the Mamo seemed to know what I was thinking.

“Look at it from the north, from the south, from the east and from the west. Turn it around in your mind and view it from top to bottom, from left to right, then turn it upside-down and sideways and look at it again. You have to watch the water with both eyes wide open if you are to see the life within it. With the eyes of a child you must look deep into the colors of the bubbles. You must watch the water from all four directions if you are to also watch the sky, to watch the birds, to discover your self.”

I would never view water in the same way again, never again take it for granted.

“In the beginning there was the ocean of Aluna, the waters of pure consciousness, of mind, of creation. It was in the beginning, it has always been, it is now. Aluna created all and is still creating. Aluna imagined all before time and is now imagining the future. We can enter into Aluna, into her memory and into her vision, by watching the water, by looking deeply into the bubbles of the waters. It is in the bubbles that we can read the memory of all that ever was. It is in the bubbles that we can see a vision of our future. It is by entering into Aluna, by concentrating on all that is revealed in the colors of the bubbles, that our consciousness becomes one with the mind of Aluna. We were all born of Aluna, we are one with her and anyone can return to Aluna at any time. The Mamos enter into Aluna all the time.

“The Younger Brother has forgotten how. When the Younger Brother left the mountain behind he also left behind his connection with Aluna. Younger Brother lives his life without any sense of oneness with Aluna. The Mamos are different; we have never lost our way, never left Aluna. We return to the realm of Aluna every day. It is in Aluna that we first discovered the law of how things were and how things were to be. It is in Aluna that we continue to discern what we are called to do, to discover our job, to learn the purpose of everything in life and to know our place and our purpose in the Mother’s great plan, in her mind, in her vision for the future. And it is in Aluna that we can see beyond the beyond, what is happening in the world beyond the mountain. 

“We can see what is happening, we can discern the changes; we can read the future.”

I believed him. He could see the water as I had never seen it. He could read my mind. He could surely see the past and read the future. He was like a magician, but I was beginning to realize he was simply seeing clearly what was already there - there for anyone to see. The Mamos had never taken any of it for granted; they had never lost their ability to see with eyes wide open.

“In the beginning was the water, the sea of Aluna. The oceans and the rivers were born in the creative imagining of Aluna. Since the beginning of time, the waters have had a rhythm, the rhythm of life. The waters of the sea rise up to the sky, and the clouds are born. The clouds embrace the mountain, and the rains and the snow are born. The waters of the snow melt into the fertile earth and begin their journey down the mountain. They form the lakes that become the source of the rivers and streams that all flow back again to the sea. And then the cycle begins again, the circle of life. The waters have had a million lifetimes and will have a million more. Every lifetime is recorded in the memory of the water, in the memory of Aluna. Every new lifetime of the water has the potential to create new life on earth. In its many lifetimes, all of the water has lived in the plants, in the animals, in the mountains and the rivers, in you and in me. The water is the thread that binds us together. Every lifetime is interwoven. Every lifetime has been different and each one has been recorded in Aluna. Every one has been remembered.”

The Mamo silently worked his poporo, rubbing the stick on the shell of the gourd, seemingly looking into the memory that had been inscribed over the course of many meditations.

“We have seen the changes. We have seen the changes in the water. We look into the water with our eyes, with our listening, with our feeling, with all our senses, we enter into the sea of Aluna, and we watch the waters, we watch the birds, we watch the sky – and we see the changes. The waters are changing. The rain no longer comes as it used to. We have months with no rain at all, and months when the rain washes the earth into the sea. Every year the snows on the mountain recede. Soon there will be no snow at all, no waters for the lakes, the rivers, the streams. Water that used to be pure as the snow is now unclean. Plants that were green are now dry and brown. Places that used to be fertile valleys are now under water, and other places now have no water at all. We have seen the changes. And in Aluna we have seen the changes beyond the mountain, beyond the sea. And we have seen the changes beyond the changes, the changes that are yet to come.”

Each of the Mamos in turn offered a blessing in the direction of the waterfall, and tossed offerings from their mochilla into the waters below. Then they motioned for me to follow them down the mountain, pointing out plants and animals and special trees to me as we walked.

“We will show you the changes. We will climb the mountain to the snows, we will go down to the sea, we will follow the river, follow the water, and you will start to see. Today we will return to the village, to our river, and you can chew on all we have shared. And you can start to watch the water. Watch the water and begin to see what you have not seen before. Begin to open your eyes to what the bubbles will reveal.

“The Younger Brother can learn to read the bubbles, not as the Mamos can, but to read them nonetheless. There is no magic in it. It’s like looking at the stars – you don’t need to know the names of every star or which is bigger or farther away to learn something about your place in the universe just by looking at them. You don’t need to know how the bubbles work; you just have to be open to learning from them. You only need to let go of all that is keeping you from seeing clearly, all your old ways of perceiving, and let yourself be open to seeing the light in the bubbles, to see in a new way. Let go of thought and awaken yourself to knowing.”

Another Mamo added, “You can learn to see the changes, too. You can widen your vision and enter into Aluna. If you don’t learn to read the changes, they will happen without you being aware, and our Mother will die. The Mother will die if the Younger Brother does not open his eyes and awaken.”

And another Mamo: “Our Mother is dying and the Younger Brother is sleeping. He needs to open his eyes and awaken. Our Mother will not survive unless he opens his eyes, unless he is fully awakened to the reality of the world around him, the world he lives in.”

And still another Mamo said, “Over time we will show you more – we will wander the mountain together and you will begin to see the changes for yourself. We will teach you how to see what you are not seeing now.”

They took me back to the valley, to the river, and the led me to a place by the water where I could see the rushing waters tumbling down the hill into a calm pool of water at my feet. I could sit on a broad flat rock and look at all the waters – the calm waters, the rushing waters, the sparkling waters and the bubbles.

“This is your work for the rest of the day. Watch the water. Find yourself in the bubbles. Let yourself become one with the water."

* * * * *

         John Lundin is the author of THE NEW MANDALA – Eastern Wisdom for Western Living, written in collaboration with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His new novel, JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE WORLD, will be published in 2014 by Humanitas Media. A motion picture and transmedia adaptation is also in development in collaboration with Executive Producer Buck Allen.

* * * * *

SCROLL DOWN to the next post to read CHAPTER ONE

* * * * *

July 2, 2012


I am regularly visiting with the Mamos – the Elders – of the indigenous peoples of La Sierra Nevada in Colombia, and continuing my research in preparation for writing JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE WORLD. The actual writing has also begun, and from time to time I will share excerpts here.

JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE WORLD is being written as an engaging Young Adult fantasy novel based on a true story. Christian Castagno is a teenager living in New York when his mother dies of cancer. She leaves behind an illustrated handwritten letter, written when he was conceived, describing the life adventures that await him. Chris tells the story of being led by a talking butterfly, in a series of what may or may not have been dreams, to a mystical mountain in South America where he meets a wise teacher, the elder of a lost tribe of indigenous peoples who fled the coast at the time of Columbus - a people who believe themselves to be the Heart of the World. The teachings of the shamanic elder trigger several dream-like heroic adventures through Chris’s past and future lives. In the end, the hero comes to understand the true purpose of life and the prescription for saving the life of his endangered Earth Mother.

Here is an excerpt, the first chapter of the book...

Chapter 1

A Message from My Mother

          I am writing this book for you. It is the true story of my life and lives. This story was not written as a book, it was lived for real – only later to be remembered and shared in a book. Some of the details have clearly come from my imagination, but that does not make them at all untrue. In fact, the imagined parts probably contain the greatest truths of all. This is my story, my life and my lives. But on many significant levels that will become apparent in due time, it is also a universal story, your story and your children’s story and your grandchildren’s story. It is for this reason that I am sharing my story with you. It’s a story far too important to keep to myself.

I was born on a Friday, February 20, 1970, at 6:23 A.M. in Sussex, New Jersey, a small part of that plot of land arbitrarily called the United States of America, and just as arbitrarily referred to as North America, presumably to differentiate it from the “other” Americas located much further south. I don’t actually have any distinct memories of that day, of course, but this is what my mother has told me, and I have pretty much always found value and truth in most anything my mother has ever seen fit to tell me. I was immediately named Christian Benjamin Castagno, which was a bit odd since my parents did not consider themselves to be Christians. Fortunately, for most of my life most people have simply called me Chris.

The story I am about to share with you here, however, does not so much begin with my rather unremarkable birth in the year nineteen-hundred and seventy, but instead begins with a series of events that started to unfold in the spring of my seventeenth year.

It all began with a dream, a most unusual dream. At least I thought it was a dream. Today I’m not so sure.

I was in the woods, a very dense and dark forest that looked more like a jungle than any forest I had ever seen before, when I heard a voice calling to me.


I looked all around but saw no one, nothing but the greenest trees and plants and the most colorful flowers I had ever seen.

“Christian.” The voice called me by name, very clearly, but still I could not see anyone.

“I’m here. I’m in the trees, on the leaves.”

“I can’t see you,” said I.

“You can’t see me because you don’t know what you’re looking for. Open your eyes. Widen your vision. Don’t look for me, just be open to seeing me. Let go of everything that is blocking your vision. Let me appear to you.”

I did. And then he did. He appeared to me. From out of the tree, from the very leaf where I had been looking but not seeing, came the biggest butterfly I have ever seen. And on his wings was a vivid image of an eye, what appeared to be a bright yellow eye of an owl. And he began to flit about, flying all around me in circles while flapping his big wings much slower than smaller butterflies do. He was bronze and gold and silver in color – except for that big yellow owl’s eye.

“Reach out to me.”

I held out my hand and the owl butterfly came to rest on my finger. His touch was so gentle I could barely feel him on my finger, and his antennae were moving continuously like he was feeling the air between us. He appeared to be looking directly at me, deep into my eyes. Somehow it felt like he knew me, like he was confirming I was the one he was calling out to.

“Follow me,” I heard him say, and he flew off my finger and began flitting back and forth through the air in front of me, teasing me, seemingly beckoning me to follow. And so I did.

But at the same time I was thinking to myself, “This can’t be real. Butterflies don’t talk. This must be a dream.”

Apparently the owl butterfly heard my thoughts. “I know you think butterflies can’t talk. All animals can speak to you. All the birds and the plants and the trees can speak to you, even the waters and the clouds. If you will listen.”

The owl butterfly continued to lead me forward, and I continued to follow. And she showed me the way out, out of the dark jungle forest into a bright clearing. Ahead, I saw what appeared to be a river or stream, some ribbon of water anyway, and beyond that mountains rose through a distant mist, up to the sky, with snow-covered peaks. I remembered thinking, “How could I be in what feels like a jungle and be looking at snowy mountains.”

Here, at the edge of the clearing, the owl butterfly circled me three times, flew directly over my head where she fluttered her wings like she was hovering above me, and then landed gently on my shoulder, not far from my ear.

She seemed to whisper to me now: “Christian, your mother is gravely ill. She wants to speak to you. She has a message for you. And your elder brother has an important message to give to you as well.”

I knew my mother was ill, that was no surprise. “But I don’t have an elder brother,” I protested, not really believing I was having such an unlikely conversation.

The owl butterfly did not answer me, but continued, “I will find you and I will call for you, and you will come. You won’t know how or why, but you will build a cocoon in your own way and at the right time, and you will emerge as a new you in one of your new lives. This life you are experiencing can actually be a past life of one of your future lives – you will come to learn that time is not a straight line from here to there, it goes round and round.”

With that, the owl butterfly began circling me again, above my head it circled, as if she was looking me over.

“Watch for me. Watch the water. Watch the birds. Watch the sky. You’ll see me again in the trees, on the branches and on the leaves, in the skies, and beside the sparkling waters. And when you see me, listen to me and follow me. I will lead you to your mother and to your elder brother. I will lead you to where you need to go, to where you need to be. Follow me.”

She flew off my shoulder and again I began to follow. But soon she was flying too fast, and even though I was running through the field now I was falling behind. Then I tripped and fell. I must have hit my head because everything appeared to swirl around me, and then all went dark. Either I fell back to sleep, or I began to awaken. I’m not sure which.

I was only once again aware of my surroundings when I heard my sister’s familiar voice.

“Are you O.K.?”

I was a bit startled and disoriented, but as I quickly realized, I was laying on the grass in my own back yard.

“Were you sleeping? Sleeping on the grass?” asked Sarah with a puzzled look on her face.

“I guess so. I’m not sure. I guess I was.”

As I looked around the familiar grassy field, I quickly became aware of how similar yet clearly different it was to the grassy clearing in my dream. The difference was this was the Catskills of upstate New York, not some lush tropical jungle. Then I caught myself looking around for a butterfly. No butterflies here, not this time anyway.

“Mom seems to have taken a turn for the worse. She wants us to come to the hospital,” Sarah said with a concerned sadness in her voice.  “She said she needs to talk to you.” Again I looked for the butterfly.

“She needs to talk to me – not just to us?”

“That’s what she said. She wants us both to come to the hospital, of course, but she specifically said she needed to talk to you.”

Still no butterfly. And nothing was said about any elder brother. But it all seemed very strange, nonetheless. And the dream – or whatever it was – continued to seem very real. In fact, it almost seemed to be continuing.

I got up from the grass and dusted myself off and followed my sister back to the house. We lived on a small farm near Woodstock, New York, having moved here from Sussex when I was five, when my dad left us. We grew lots of things on the little five-acre farm, but mostly herbs and spices – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, and much, much more. Rocky Hollow Herb Farm was known throughout the Catskills, and across the country, too, as the place for every kind of natural organic herb and spice imaginable. We had a little roadside stand, and sometimes in the summer I’d help out by selling the plants and spices, even seeds. We also had a catalog, and sometimes I’d help pack up the orders and mail them.

Mom was sort of one of those hippies who never really grew up, very much in touch with nature and also very artistic. In addition to the farm in the country, we had an apartment in New York City, in Brooklyn, actually, because mom also worked at the Guggenheim, the famous art museum, where she worked in public relations. So I grew up with one foot always in the country, and the other firmly planted in the big City. And I liked that.

So it was very surprising that my mom, of all people, would wind up with cancer. She had always lived a very healthy lifestyle - pretty much a vegetarian, and always growing and cooking and eating the very best fresh fruits and vegetables. She was into “organic” before most of the rest of the world knew what that meant.  She exercised, did yoga, even meditation. So of all the people I knew in my life, she was the last one I would have ever expected to develop cancer. It was metastatic cancer, they called it - the worst kind - that started with a small tumor in her brain. Because it was embedded in her brain it could not be removed, and it was spreading, broadcasting the cancer to other parts of her body.

Mom believed the cancer was simply the inevitable result of the environment we all live in, things she had no control over. There were chemicals in the water, pesticides in the plants and the ground, pollution in the air. Even eating healthy and exercising can’t fix things if the water and the air, the most basic elements of life, are poisoned, she would say.

 My mother was dying. My sister and I, everyone, knew that, but we didn't want to believe it. It was as though we were in some form of denial. We acted as though we thought that if we talked about it she would die, but if we didn't talk about it, didn't acknowledge the fact, then she wouldn't die. It didn't make any sense, I know, but that’s the way we were dealing with it anyway. I think it was in part a reaction to the feeling of helplessness – there was nothing I could do to help my mother, so I tried to pretend she was not in trouble. What could I do? I was just a teenager in New York. What could I do to stop the spread of a cancer that had been caused by air pollution and water pollution that I had nothing to do with, a cancer that was spreading out of control, a cancer that was killing my mother?

Sarah and I started the drive to the hospital. The afternoon clouds were building as they often do in the Catskills in springtime, and it was starting to drizzle. That was a good thing since it had been a very dry spring so far, and that was on top of a winter with very little snow. We were both very quiet, and I couldn't stop replaying that dream in my head. It seemed so real, and yet so much of it made no sense at all. Talking butterfly. An elder brother - an elder brother that I don’t have - having a message for me. Then my mother wants to talk to me, and right away it turns out she really does want to talk to me! And that jungle, like something out of a movie.

And then I fall down, black out, and wake up on the grass in my own back yard. And it still doesn't feel like a dream. To this day, I’m still not certain it was a dream.

Sarah was especially quiet as we drove. She and I had never been real close, not like some brothers and sisters are. She was the introverted quiet type and I was always the outgoing one, always doing guy stuff.  She and my mom and my Aunt Susan ran the herb farm, and while I helped out some, most of the time I was playing sports or playing music. And I always had girlfriends, too, though never a really steady one. Except Mary. She lived practically next door most of the time I was growing up, so I never really thought of her as a girlfriend. But she was.

I think both Sarah and I missed having a father figure in our life. We never really talked about it. Being without a father around was all we really knew, and a lot of our friends were in the same situation. Still, it often felt like something was missing in my life. My dad’s parents were from Colombia, in South America, and the family story was that he was also part American Indian, so I sometimes wanted to know about that part of my heritage. And just as my mom was very artistic, dad had been very musical. We still had an attic full of bongo drums and guitars and rhythm instruments that had been my dad’s. I think his Latin rhythms still flow through my veins as I've always had a love for that kind of music. But I don’t have any real memories of my father. I don’t even know where he is now.

Sarah was the first to break the silence. “I think Mom wants to tell us she’s going to die soon.”

It was raining steadily now, giving the lush green foliage a look that was both melancholy and tranquil, the sort of afternoon rain that causes one to daydream and reflect. As we drove, I was sure Sarah was wondering what the future held if Mom passed away. We would probably stay with Aunt Susan, but I didn't know what would happen to the farm or the apartment. I was going to be eighteen soon, so I’d be able to do what I wanted, but I didn't really know what that was – I didn't know what I wanted to do if I was really on my own. Sarah would probably just continue to help Aunt Susan run the farm. She’d be O.K. I don’t think either of us could imagine living without our mom. We never talked about it. I still couldn't believe we might actually lose our mother.

When we got to the hospital, the sky had become dark and it was now raining heavily. Aunt Susan was already there. “Your mother is gravely ill, kids. She wants to talk with you. I’m afraid we’re going to lose her soon.” When we got to her room, she did look very ill, but she also had an almost angelic calm about her. She looked at peace. She had been undergoing radiation therapy for several weeks, and that had taken a toll on her. She was very pale and had lost her hair and she was very thin, but today she seemed to have come to terms with her situation in her own way. She smiled at us as we all came into the room and sat down beside her.

“You know I haven’t got much longer to live,” she said almost matter-of-factly. Mom was never one to beat around the bush – when she had something to say, she said it. “This cancer is spreading faster every day, and of course there’s nothing they can do. I don’t know how much time I have left. I’m not really in pain now, but the doctors say I will be soon. They can ease the pain with drugs, but I've told them no. What’s the use? There’s no reason to drag out the inevitable. When it’s time for me to go, let’s get on with it, I said.” Even now her voice was sounding weaker. “I may soon be too out of it to be able to talk straight, so I wanted to talk to you both now.”

It was hard to see my mother dying and to hear her speak to me, maybe for the last time, without the tears welling up in my eyes and starting to roll down my cheek.

“Aunt Susan will be your guardian. But you’re both nearly adults, and you've long been able to take care of yourselves. I don’t worry about either of you. You’re both great kids, and you’re going to be fine young adults, too. I've already transferred the farm and the apartment into a trust, with Aunt Susan overseeing it. They will be yours for as long as you want them. And you know the business is doing well, and I’ve been lucky with my investments, so there’s a reasonable estate that will keep you going after I’m gone.”

It was becoming harder for her to find the strength to speak. This was so difficult, but in Mom’s typical fashion, she had thought of everything. That didn't stop my tears, though.

“Sarah, I’m leaving the business to you, and I know you’ll continue to run it with love. But I want you to know that you’re always free to follow your heart wherever it may lead you. Don’t ever feel you have to stay on that old farm just because it was mine. It’s yours now. Do with it as you see fit. I’m proud that the world will always know you as my daughter.”

Mom seemed to be saying good-bye to each of us now.

“And Chris, my son. You’re still half owner of the farm, too. But I know your heart will lead you in a different direction. I have always known that. From the moment you were conceived, I have known you were destined to live an adventure, and to make your mark on the world. The world is calling you, Chris. Watch the water, watch the birds, watch the sky. You’re destined to explore a world that stretches forever, beyond all the waters of all the rivers - and beyond the beyond…”

Her voice was weaker now, and her breathing more strained. From under the blanket, she produced a leather pouch she seemed to have been clutching close to her. She placed the worn leather folder in my hands and clasped her hands around mine. She looked deeply into my eyes with her weak but still clear eyes, and said in a whisper, “This is yours. It has always been yours.”

Then she spoke for all in the room to hear, with a voice that seemed to be sharing a poem from her heart:

“Sweet boy, believe me
The silver ripples
Shine in your eyes
And when the wind and tears
Will say goodbyes
The story will be told
Of all the things
We knew we would remember…”

These would be her last words. 

As the nurses and doctors filled the room, I opened the leather folder and carefully removed the bound pages, lovingly illustrated and held together by a golden thread. It was then that I read for the first time the first words my mother ever spoke to me, written in her hand on pages that were kept close to her heart from the day I was conceived, and which have remained close to my heart every day since that rainy spring afternoon when she passed away:

March 1, 2012

...the Journey to the Heart of theWorld continues...

March 1, 2012 - Minca, Colombia

I have officially arrived in La Sierra Nevada! Research and initial writing of my new book, presenting the spiritual and environmental message of the Elders (the Mamos) of the four indigenous peoples of La Sierra - the Kogi, Arhuacos, Cankuamo, and Wiwa - is officially underway. After spending four months in Medellin, engaged in research and improving my Spanish, I have now established a “home base” in Minca, in the foothills of La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a half-hour by car from the port city of Santa Marta. Minca is located in a “coastal jungle” climate zone, at about 2,500 feet altitude. The jungle greenery, with virtually every tropical fruit tree and flower imaginable, and the many colorful birds, some of which are found nowhere else on the planet, make this eco-village a magnificent gateway to La Sierra.

I have made two trips up the mountain to Nabusimake, the village that is the capital of the Arhuaco nation. The Arhuacos have lived in virtual isolation for more than 500 years, and even today their suspicion of outsiders I evident, with the road into the village being almost impassable. A very rough 2-hour off-road trip by Toyota Land Cruiser is the only way in. But the beautiful pastoral valley that would be my home and my classroom for the week was worth every bump and twist and turn in the road. The virtual lack of anything “modern” – no electricity, no vehicular traffic – and the myriad farm animals wandering the valley between the thatched huts creates a scene that takes one delightfully back in time.

I will be making the trip into the Nabusimake valley approximately once a month, to live with the villagers and to learn directly from the Mamos. The Mamos of the four pueblos have agreed to teach me what they call the natural law, and to convey to me their spiritual and environmental message so that I may in turn convey it to the world in a new book.

I will also be visiting the villages of the other three indigenous peoples of La Sierra, to eventually receive teachings from the Mamos of all four pueblos.

In addition to receiving spiritual teachings from the Mamos, I have been engaged in preliminary research for the book, visiting the Botanical Garden in Medellin, visiting with the curator of the butterfly house as well as learning about the myriad plants and trees and flowers of Colombia. Ad I have been learning about the birds from noted birding guides in Minca – a world-renowned birding destination. It is my intent to write a mytho-poetic epic novel that will be aimed at a Young Adult audience, and which will be something of a fantasy adventure, with talking butterflies, birds and tress encountered by the “hero” along the way. The protagonist will also travel back and forth between past, present and future lives where he will experience all that he will be learning about the nature of our Earth Mother and the impact the Younger Brother (namely you and I..!) are having on Her long-term well-being.

I will be using my Facebook page and this site to keep you posted – with words and photos – on my adventures and the progress of my research and writing. -Namaste…